Why Pokémon Go Trainers Are Stumbling Upon Holy Ground in Their Quest to Catch 'Em All

Jul 15, 2016

Last Sunday, St. Paul Catholic Church welcomed some new parishioners into the fold, albeit briefly.

During the the 5 p.m. service last Sunday, several new faces walked into the chapel. They weren’t seeking confession or absolution, or even a good homily. They were, in the evening hours of the Lord’s Day, looking for a Bulbasaur.

They weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms, says Bob Dugas, director of the church’s business administration.

“They were asked to leave.”

It was a first for the church, says Dugas, but, since last week, it’s been a frequent occurrence – with dozens of people a day descending on the 11-and-a-half-acre property that’s a hotspot for Pokémon Go players. But the church isn’t alone. Since a code push earlier this week, the number of Pokéstops and gyms has exploded in Austin– namely in the downtown area, which was the subject of a change.org petition ahead of the expansion.

Like hundreds of other places of worship, All Saints' Episcopal Church on the UT-Austin campus is a Pokéstop.
Credit Screenshot via Pokémon Go

So, on Wednesday, the Austin Police Department took the time to remind Austinites of a seemingly obvious tenet of existence: “The real world is still around you.”

Officer Destiny Winston’s pointed advice wasn’t directed at the scores of Austinites afflicted with Peter Pan Syndrome; it was focused squarely on those playing what’s now the biggest mobile game of all time.

Some have praised it for turning the often-cloistered, couch-based gaming world on its head, bringing players outside so they can actually interact with each other outside of online lobbies. But, the game’s also been the focus of many a hyperbolic headline. In just over a week, it’s been linked to premature deaths, child endangerment, digital demonic possession by the so-called Islamic State and (in Austin) a robbery. But, APD also took the time to cautioned players against the more likely violation concerning those glued to their screens: trespassing.

“Do not go into private property, dark alleys or places you wouldn’t normally go when playing the Pokémon game,” Winston said.

Dugas says St. Paul’s has seen plenty of players at all hours of the day.

“We’ve had quite a few cars come – just stop right in the middle of the parking lot,” Dugas said. “And we’ve had some try to get into the church to play the game, just disrupting our day-to-day activities.”

Those day-to-day activities start in the mornings with a summer preschool program and end with church meetings that stretch into the night, ending at around 8 or 9 p.m. While people in the parking lots are amiable enough, the church remains somewhat leary of  folks hanging around, even if they are just staring at their phones.

Like St. Paul’s, Pokéstops and gyms in Austin didn’t sign up for the designations. It just happened overnight, essentially.

The game – if you’ve been in a fallout shelter for the past week – allows players catch and collect their favorite pocket monsters using augmented reality.

But it’s the locations at which those monsters are found that have given some folks pause – places like Auschwitz, the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and even the White House.

"It would’ve been nice had we been asked before our place was chosen for this game."

That’s because Pokémon Go’s mapping network is derived from the network of Ingress, a similar game that was co-created by Niantic, a skunkworks project that was spawned at Google, and split from Alphabet, Google's parent company, last year. The map is based partly on Google Maps, which has had holy places on its map for years, and partly on the users of Ingress, who’ve marked certain locations as possible spots for portals (in Ingress), some of which have become gyms and Pokéstops in Pokémon Go. 

“We basically defined the kinds of places that we wanted to be part of the game," John Hanke, CEO and founder of Niantic, told Mashable. "Things that were public artwork, that were historical sites, that were buildings with some unique architectural history or characteristic, or a unique local business."

We reached out to Niantic for this story, but have yet to receive a response.

As of today, there are over 150 churches, mosques, temples and other places of worship on Pokémon Go, according to a Google map of Pokemon Go-related locations.

Cemeteries as well have seen their fair share of activity as a result of the pocket monster-seeking throngs, including the Capital Parks Funeral Home in Pflugerville. An emailed statement from Cook-Walden, the cemetery’s administrator, asked players to avoid loitering in their cemeteries:

We are aware that Cook-Walden/Capital Parks Funeral Home has been identified as a “hotspot” in the new Pokémon Go game. Cemeteries, by their nature, are quiet and serene spaces designed to serve as a final resting place and to provide families with a place to honor their loved ones. All Cook-Walden locations are privately owned and out of respect for the families we serve, Pokémon Go players are asked to refrain from loitering and playing the game while on the property.

But, there’s no real clear opt-out (or opt-in) system for properties that are, or would like to be, Pokéstops or gyms.

If there were, Dugas said, he’d ask Niantic to wipe St. Paul’s off the map.

“If I had a choice, I’d ask them to remove us from the list, because this is private property, and people are coming at all hours of the day and night to play this game,” he said. "It’s one of those things that it would’ve been nice had we been asked before our place was chosen for this game. “

On Thursday, Niantic briefly had a request/takedown submission form for locations, but they’ve since pulled it offline.

If you’re looking for a good Friday afternoon laugh – or you’re just looking to stay informed while you lowkey weep for the future – here’s a smattering of tweets from Austin area trainers who’ve stumbled upon holy ground in their quest to catch ‘em all:

[View the story "Houses of the Poké" on Storify]